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Firefighters have higher risk of being diagnosed with and dying from cancer

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FARMINGTON — A Farmington firefighter who recently died of cancer has left a mark on the department's work and efforts to keep firefighters healthy and safe.

Lt. Jacob Shadd Rohwer of the Farmington Fire Department died on Jan. 11 after several years of battling cancer likely caused by his profession.

The 44 year old pushed the department's chiefs and administration to implement new policies and purchase new equipment to help protect firefighters from exposure to contamination while on call and in the fire station, acting fire Chief David Burke said.

"He really pushed the organization forward to be as safe as possible," Burke said. "Not only with equipment but (procedures) and other components to make the whole work environment safer."

A mass was found in Rohwer's abdomen during an annual physical, according to Burke. He was directed to seek further evaluation and was diagnosed with cancer in June 2015.

Firefighters are 14 percent more likely to die from cancer and have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer than the general population, according to a 2015 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study.

One of the areas Rohwer focused his attention on was addressing the hazards of toxic off-gassing or the gas released by materials after firefighters extinguish a fire.

Ben Thorsheim, Farmington fire engineer and PPE coordinator, said the most hazardous time for firefighters is after the fire is out when there is still enough heat for synthetic materials to be off-gassing but not hot enough for the materials to burn.

Casey Grant, the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, said the synthetic materials used in many household items, including modern furniture, rugs and curtains, burn very fast and hot with a great deal of energy, which creates a more dangerous type of fire.

The Fire Protection Research Foundation is the research arm of the National Fire Protection Association.

More: Farmington firefighter dies of cancer

There is a "hard push" by firefighters to keep contaminants found at the site of a fire there and minimize exposure to firefighters, according to Grant.

"We don't know what they are exposed to, and that's a real problem," Grant said.

Rohwer dedicated a lot of time and energy to creating a safer work environment when he returned to the department after recovering from his initial treatment and surgery for cancer, Burke said.

He attended special training at an event in Las Vegas, Nev., to learn about the requirements for removing products of combustion or contaminants from firefighting gear.

That led to the department to purchase a specific type of washer and dryer Burke called an extractor to wash gear. Thorsheim said the equipment is specifically tuned to handle the gear, including adjustments to use the correct water temperature and the amount of g-forces during the wash cycle.

Part of the change includes changing the mindset within the firefighter culture, Thorshiem said. In the past, it was acceptable for firefighters to wear structure gear that was sometimes dirty, black and smelled like smoke.

"We've learned that we are not only hurting ourselves but we could have (contaminants) go somewhere else where we don't want it to happen," Thorsheim said.

Some of Rohwer's work can be seen and heard in the recently rebuilt Farmington Fire Department Station 1 on Auburn Avenue.

During a tour of the facility, Thorsheim highlighted a room adjacent to the apparatus bay floor where the fire engines and vehicles are parked. It was built specifically to store firefighter gear away from the exhaust generated from the fire engines, which can contaminate their gear.

The room has its own air handling system, and all the doors are sealed to prevent exhaust from entering.

"Anytime a diesel fires up, it produces a lot of contaminants that could embed in the equipment," Burke said.

The department used to store gear in an area on the bay floor or an area exposed to exhaust by the engines.

An exhaust extraction system was installed featuring fans that are turned on when the bay doors open and the trucks are started. It sucks the exhaust from the bay floor so it doesn't rise into the living quarters upstairs. The living quarters also are pressurized to prevent the exhaust from entering their kitchen and sleeping quarters.

Burke said Rohwer's work is helping the fire department fulfill its goal of having a healthy work force and trying to provide every new employee with an opportunity to have a full career and retire healthy.

"His biggest influence was on the culture of the department," Burke said. "Whatever he did, he would do it all the way. He was not the kind of person to do it partially."

In the future, the department is looking at different ways to capture exhaust from the engines, including a system in which a hose is attached to the exhaust system.

Rohwer's memorial service and celebration of life are scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at the San Juan College Henderson Fine Arts Center.

Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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